Why You Need to Be Talking to Teens about Sex (From a Recent Teen)
By Ruku Taneja
Before you brand me as a liberal, sexual Satan, I want you to know that by law, all primary school students in the Netherlands are currently receiving some form of the birds and the bees talk. As you read this, someone is rightfully explaining sex to preteens. And even though we are not in the Netherlands and even if it’s not in our “culture” to talk about the hush-hush act of intercourse — your kids, too, are thinking about having sex.
And I am here to tell you that you can’t stop them.
That’s right. Adolescence is a time of dramatic physical and emotional change, a time when the teen brain is primarily driven by excitement and arousal. You can think “not my beta” all you want, but your beta is producing 10 times the testosterone he was when he was a little bean. And, so, it’s probable your beta is one of the 60% of young Indians aged 15 to 24 having sex to fit in — under the trees in the local park, behind cars on an abandoned road and on terraces when no one’s looking.
What you can do is try talking to teens about sex. And take it from someone who was a teen a lot more recently than you: You should.
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What happens when you don’t talk about sex with your teen
First thing, first: “Talking about sex doesn’t make you have sex,” a very tiny and bright teenager in my building complex told me after I agreed to do an ‘Instagram shoot’ for her in return for a peek into the new-age teen mind. (And before you get your parenting knickers in a twist, there is a lot of research supporting her assertion.) While I fixated on taking pictures in landscape, she continued on about how Indian parents think it’s “weird to talk about sex,” but not weird to have kids discover sex by themselves. (This hit home and reminded me of how I learned about female orgasms on the phone via a strange, anonymous man I met on Orkut — my generation’s Facebook. My mum came into the room and told me to get off the phone. But all I did was get off.)
“I can’t relate to my mom and her denial, and therefore I speak to my friends about my problems,” agreed my Instagram star.
It’s like the sexually blind leading the blind into teenage pregnancies, STDs and emotional distress. The inability to relate to elusive, strict or distant parents leads teens to sneaking around more than their peers who have open communication lines with parents. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Rules are meant to be broken”? I said that as a teenager. Multiple times. Often while on my knees and on my back.
If I had ever been given a logical reason as to why I shouldn’t have had sex, then I would have considered waiting longer or doing it respectfully, when I was truly ready. But when all my parents — and my posh, over-priced “modern school” in Mumbai — said was, “No, you can’t,” well, it was too easy to say, “Yes, we can!” (This is what I call selectively hearing the Obama campaign.)
Read more on navigating difficult conversations with kids.
And aside from word-of-[dumb-friend]-mouth, do you know the biggest source of information on sex teenagers turn to? Porn. More and more children aged 12 to 13 are watching porn now. Possibly with snacks.
Because you won’t talk to us, we have to learn from infamous porn stars like James freakin’ Dean about getting it in. This man was accused of sexual abuse mid-scene by his female co-stars. And this is the kind of sexually successful adult teens look up to, because talking about sex is too awkward for you. Your feelings here are, of course, way more important than possible teen pregnancy, STDs and desensitization to sexual abuse.
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A recent teen’s guide to talking to teens about sex
If you are feeling guilty now or are Googling “signs that my kid is having sex” then let me pop that bubble of hope for you. Even a Times Of India-featured child psychologist, Dr Bela Raja, says that “unless they actually tell you about it themselves or they are caught in the act, there’s no definitive way of telling.”
You know what you can do to know about your teens’ sex lives? Talk to them about it. But you have to do it the right way.
Talking to teens about sex is not a one-time drill, it’s an ongoing conversation. You cannot carpe diem in the middle of Titanic and reprimand your little Meghna for showing an interest in lovemaking. You cannot give the birds and the bees talk when they are 13 and pregnant. From a young age, you need to encourage an atmosphere of openness where sex is not a taboo topic. “Mommy and daddy kiss each other because they are married” would be a good start. There is also a lot of research backing up the fact that teens who talk to their parents, especially mothers, about sex on the regular are more likely to practice safe sex. So, don’t come for me.
Read more about talking about sexuality with kids in an age-appropriate way.
Also please remember that nothing turns a teen off more from a conversation than reliving your sexual encounters. This is not about your topless holiday in Miami; this is about them. Explain the teen’s options when it comes to sex, showcase the pros and cons, and explain why you have a bias toward a particular decision (not to have sex at all, say, or to talk to you before taking the plunge, or to always use a condom).
But don’t think you get to stop there. Sex is about a lot more than physical freakiness. Girls and boys, especially in India, need to be informed about consent, date rape, homosexuality and healthy versus unhealthy dating. This is where that open line of conversation that you started when they were young comes in handy. If you didn’t start one, it’s not too late to change. Take a teen out for a shopping trip or an IPL game and you pretty much have their attention. Tell them what feelings are normal at their age, ask them about their puppy lover and help them understand the emotional mechanics of a relationship (teen or not). Is it lust, love, or infatuation? Is it healthy? Is there a sexual and non-sexual future to this teen union? Get real, be respectful and — warning — do not judge or your teen will explode.
Lastly, I am going to emphasise what will definitely Not Help: Your teen’s doctor. Don’t you dare do it. Don’t you make the doctor uncle do a “routine check-up” and ask questions about having a boyfriend and having sex. (Clearly, I am still traumatized from it. I would have rather talked to my alcoholic aunty over him, but what’s done is done.) Drunk aunts, creepy doctor-uncles and porn stars can’t be the role models you want your kids to have.
Good news is, there’s another option: You. A meta-analysis of adolescent sexual behaviour published in JAMA Pediatrics last year found parents “can exert significant influence on adolescents’ sexual attitudes, values, and beliefs regarding risks.” Teens are secretly all ears and subliminally care about your thoughts and the valuable information you can pass on.
So, if you can exert “significant influence” on your teen’s sexual attitudes, values and beliefs, then — why wouldn’t you?